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Ham House’s exquisite cabinets

Marquetry Cabinet in the Long Gallery at Ham House and Garden, Surrey with paintings on the wall in the background
An ebony cabinet, made in around 1675, decorated with floral marquetry, in the Long Gallery at Ham House, London | © National Trust Images/Chris Davies

Ham House is home to a rare collection of cabinets, which are opened twice a year for visitors to explore their unique artisanship during the Cabinets Unlocked showcase. The collection of cabinets at Ham House includes examples of marquetry, lacquer and inlay, collected from countries including Japan, China, and the Netherlands as well as England.

Although cabinets and chests have been used since Roman times, in the 16th and 17th centuries they became valued as beautiful objects as well as objects of utility. They were status symbols that a wealthy family would aspire to own and display. As a result of this enthusiasm, the skill and technical expertise of cabinet makers reached new heights in the 17th century.

The collection of cabinets at Ham House includes examples of marquetry, lacquer and inlay, collected from countries including Japan, China, and the Netherlands as well as England.

Most (if not all) of the cabinets were collected by Elizabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale, whose signature authorised bills for payment to the craftspeople for their work. One example lists the many payments made to ‘Mr. Jensen Cabenett: Maker’.

Gerritt Jensen was one of the finest cabinet makers of the time. Most cabinets incorporated secret drawers and compartments, hidden to all but the owner, the maker, and trusted confidantes.

What were they used for?

Cabinets were not only practical objects used for storage. They were also objects of art, often decorated in elaborate marquetry or other decoration. Cabinets were used to display and share items such as shells, jewels, or relics, that the owner would show to their friends to demonstrate their taste and education. Owners might also use secret compartments to hide confidential documents or letters.

Why aren’t the cabinets always open?

These cabinets have always been objects to admire, opened only on occasion. By keeping the cabinets closed we keep the interiors protected from damage by light and pollution. The bright colours inside the cabinets show the difference that this careful management makes. Opening them only occasionally also protects the hinges from carrying too much weight, which would distort the structure of the cabinet over time.

Find out more about the history and creation of the cabinets around Ham House:

Ivory Cabinet (North Drawing Room)

Created around 1650-1660 in the Netherlands, this is the only known example of a cabinet completely veneered in ivory, both outside and inside.

Ivory was a rare and valuable material in the mid seventeenth century, and was in demand in Holland for the decoration of fine cabinet work.

The cabinet contains at least two secret drawers and a secret compartment. The geometrically-arranged and rippled veneer creates a three-dimensional, geometric effect.

Harpsichord and Ivory Cabinet in the North Drawing room at Ham House and Garden, London
The 17th century ivory cabinet and harpsichord in the North Drawing Room at Ham House | © National Trust Images/Chris Davies

Harpsichord (North Drawing Room)

Made around 1730 of unknown British origin, it takes its style from well-known 17th century Flemish keyboard instrument makers, Ruckers. Although it says ‘Ioannes Ruckers me fecit antverpiae’ (John Ruckers made me in Antwerp) inside the lid, it is considered to be an expert imitation. By the early to mid-eighteenth century, most grand houses would have had a harpsichord or similar small keyboard instrument. Ladies were advised to learn harpsichord rather than a wind instrument as it was thought better for their posture.

Pair of Lacquer Cabinets (Green Closet)

Lacquered and inlaid with mother of pearl, these Japanese cabinets show images of blossom, buildings, and mythical birds. They have stood in this room since the 17th century, when they were recorded in the 1677 inventory for Ham House. They were collected by Elizabeth Murray, Duchess of Lauderdale, who gathered a large collection of Asian furniture in the 1670s. At the time, Japan and China were admired for their civility and learning, and collecting such items was a powerful statement of taste and education.

Lacquer Cabinet (Long Gallery)

Dating to around 1650, Ham’s intricate Japanese lacquer cabinet has stood in the Long Gallery since 1679. Lacquer comes from the refined sap of the Chinese lacquer tree, or Toxicodendron vernicifluum. Up to 200 layers are applied to achieve the lustrous black finish seen inside the cabinet. Each layer takes at least two days to dry, so the whole production would take several years. The top of this cabinet was removed in the 18th century by renowned furniture maker George Nix, in order to create a table which now sits in the Queen's Closet.

Walnut-veneered Cabinet (Long Gallery)

Like many of the cabinets at Ham House, this 1675 walnut-veneered has a secret compartment. Cabinet makers became skilled at creating intricate geometric patterns with thin cross-cut ovals of small diameter timber. This was known as oyster veneering, due to similarities in shape to oyster shells. Walnut is a versatile and strong wood that was used by many fashionable furniture makers at this time.

Marquetry Cabinet (Long Gallery)

Influenced by French fashion, floral marquetry became highly popular in wealthy and royal circles in the late 17th century. This example at Ham is an early and exceptional example, made by the acclaimed Anglo-Dutch cabinet maker Gerritt Jensen. Elizabeth and John, Duchess and Duke of Lauderdale, were among the earliest patrons of Jensen. They helped to popularise floral marquetry, and Jensen’s work, in England between 1672-1683. This cabinet has stood at Ham since the 1670s.

If you look closely, you can see that every drawer and flower is subtly different. This demonstrates the quality of the piece since each design was made individually rather than cut from a consistent pattern. The three-dimensional effect is created by singeing the wood segments in hot sand.

Lacquer Cabinet (Queen’s Antechamber)

Unlike smooth lacquered cabinets, this is an example of incised or ‘Coromandel’ lacquer. The design is created by cutting into a thick gesso-type base layer, then applying coloured lacquers. Coromandel lacquer is so named because it was shipped to Europe via the south-east Indian cost of Coromandel. It was often shipped in panels, and used to create furniture once it had arrived in Europe.

Here, an English maker has constructed the cabinet with a number of incised lacquer panels. If you look closely, you can see that it was not always considered important for the decorative scenes to line up or to be complete – or even sometimes to be the right way up.

Miniature cabinet (Queen’s Antechamber)

Likely made in England around 1650, this miniature cabinet incorporates Chinese lacquer and japanned work. Smaller cabinets like these might have been used to store jewellery and other precious goods. The front doors depict two figures surrounded by flowers and foliage, and the inside is fitted with eight drawers decorated with flowering plants. In 17th century Europe, China was admired for its civility and learning. The collecting of Chinese and Japanese luxury goods was intended to display a person’s good taste and education.

Cabinet on Chest (Library Closet)

This cabinet is unusual at Ham, in that it consists of a cabinet seated on top of a lower chest. Veneered in walnut parquetry and created around 1700, its bracket feet are probably later replacements for original ‘bun’ feet, like those on most other cabinets at Ham House. The cut of the parquetry creates an attractive design effect on the front of the drawers, which appear to look like the heads of birds.

Cedar Writing Desk, or Escritoire (Library)

Set within the shelves of the Library, the cabinet can be dated to 1672-4 when the library was constructed. The scent of cedar repels insects that might damage books, so it is an ideal material to use in a library. This desk was likely used by John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale and Elizabeth’s second husband. He was Secretary of State for Scotland and one of the first Lords of Trade and Plantations, under King Charles II.

Writing box (Library)

This writing box dating around 1680 contains everything the discerning 17th century gentleman needed to keep up with his correspondence. It contains several compartments for writing materials, including drawers and ink wells. It may have been used by John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, Elizabeth’s second husband. The reddish wood, padouk, is an exotic wood similar to rosewood.

Scriptor (Duchess’s Private Closet)

The simple exterior of this 1675 piece conceals a striking interior. The dramatic coloured effect was created by incorporating the darker heartwood and the lighter sapwood into the veneered pattern. Cocus was one of the most favoured materials for making oyster-veneered cabinets in the 1660s and 1670s. An expensive wood, it could be used economically to create this effect because of the thinness of the veneer.

Strong Box (Duchess’ Private Closet)

This was recorded as a ‘box with an extraordinary Lock’ in the 1683 inventory. It is attributed to the cabinet maker Gerritt Jensen, and was made around 1675. The complex lock has 36 hasps, all of which release on the turn of the key. At a time when banking was in its infancy and before safe-deposit boxes existed, boxes like these were essential for the storage of money and jewellery. Tucked behind the visible drawers are a set of secret drawers, perfect for concealing hidden valuables or private letters.

Scriptor (White Closet)

Known to have been the personal writing desk of Elizabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale, the scriptor is covered in kingwood oysterwork veneer, made from thin slivers of wood cut obliquely across the branch to make the distinctive oval shape. The interior is veneered in rosewood. The silver mounts in the shape of grotesque masks may have been supplied by London silversmith Josias Iback, who was paid £10 in 1673 for his work.

Antwerp Cabinet (Withdrawing Room)

This ornate cabinet first appears on the Ham House inventory of 1677 as the ‘Cabinet done wt Tortus Schell’. The interior is mirrored and with a chequerboard black and white floor, reminiscent of the marble floor in the Great Hall.

This cabinet is notable for its display of a variety of costly materials such as tortoiseshell, marble and ivory. Tortoiseshell was mainly sourced from the hawksbill sea turtle. This is now a critically endangered species and the trade in tortoiseshell was banned in 2014. The pale beige stone is Italian pietra paesina, or ‘landscape stone’. It is a rare type of limestone which forms naturally, but appears as though it is a landscape painted by a human hand.

Antwerp cabinet in the withdrawing room at Ham House and Garden in London, with two chairs in the foreground
The 1630s Antwerp Cabinet is ornately detailed with tortoiseshell, marble and ivory | © National Trust Images/Chris Davies

Table Cabinet (Duke’s Dressing Room)

Please note this cabinet is currently away for conservation work.

This is one of several ‘Indian boxes’ listed in the 1670s inventories for Ham House. ‘Indian’ mostly referred to Chinese and Japanese objects, some of which were shipped to Europe via the Coromandel coast in south-east India. This designation illustrates the vague understanding of Asian geography in the late 17th century. This coast was a hub for several European trading powers in the late 17th century, including the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC). This was the largest trading company in Asia, and generated huge profits through colonial monopolies.

Ebony Cabinet (Duke’s Dressing Room)

Along with the ivory cabinet in the North Drawing Room, the ebony cabinet is an early example of a fully fitted interior, rather than simple shelves. At first glance, it appears that there are 34 small drawers inside, but many of these are in fact double width drawers. They would have been ideal for storing documents. Original inventories allow us to trace this piece of furniture through the centuries. Elizabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale, authorised a payment to a Dutch intermediary ‘Mistress v.d. Huva’ for a ‘cabinet of black ebonie’, and the 1677 inventory for Ham House records a ‘black Abinie Cabinet’ in the Long Gallery.

Strong Box (Duchess’ Bedchamber)

The heavy brass bandings on the 1675 strong box indicate that this piece was intended for security. Holes on the underside of the box allowed it to be attached to the floor of a carriage while travelling, for extra protection. The strongbox contains numerous hidden compartments, some no bigger than a match box, perfect for secretly storing jewels or letters. The outside is veneered in kingwood and the inside is veneered in rosewood.

Scriptor (Duke’s Closet)

The inventory for Ham House records this ‘Scritore of Walnut tree done with Silver’ as stood in ‘His Graces Closett’ in 1677. This writing desk of exceptional quality was made for this room for John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale and Elizabeth’s second husband in around 1673. It is veneered in burr elm and has traces of silvering on the legs. The Duke also had a matching reclining ‘sleeping chair’ in this room.

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